I was having lunch with my friend Kiki and we started to talk about the nature of religious art. I love getting Kiki’s views on such things, she’s a pastor’s kid who is now a Buddhist/Pagan practitioner so she can offer a perspective I rarely consider. She asked me why I thought that modern religious art of all kinds allows in any positive image even if it is mediocre and shies away from perhaps “darker” themes. I see it in Christianity, she sees it in Buddhism but especially in the pagan world.
I told her that from my religion I can for conversation’s sake narrow it down to three things. First, I think we take Phillipians 4:8, which says:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
and we make it into “Think of only nice things”. Which is not what it says. As Sondheim has pointed out to us “Nice is different from good”. I think that we also take the “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes” and make value judgments based on how something makes us feel instead of how it is. Comfort and Art don’t always go together, and yet it is nearly a requirement in modern religious work.
I also think that perhaps as a people who follow the Father of heavenly lights who does not change like the shifting shadows feel that anything that is part of the human experience and less than divine is not good to contemplate. I am not sure if this is something left over from the marks of transcendentalism on mainstream religion or is part of legalism that thinks that we are totting up good and bad marks to be reviewed by a judging god. There’s some idea (that I want to explore in another post some other time) that anything earthly and of this existence is intrinsically poisoned, and I just don’t believe that about a creation that was called “good”.
Last, I think that we have (sweeping generalization ahead) lost a couple key skills that are important in interacting with art in the faith community. There are few churches where one may amicably disagree or change one’s mind without feeling that you are breeding strife. Small issues become giant issues. People’s salvation is called into question. It’s a volatile place to view art from. I also think that as a culture we are disinclined to interact with anything that requires us to analyze or defend in a real way… and effective Art almost always requires both things.
I don’t think any of these issues are insurmountable. It’s like the way generationally we’ve realized that maybe the line between “Christian artist” and “believer who makes art” shouldn’t be so defined. It was encouraging to me to hear that these are not issues unique to Christianity, which leads me to believe that these are tendencies of humans and not just Believing humans. Sometimes I forget that there are humans in that odd ritualistic amalgamation of church that is also Church.
There are so many believers out there that make art, and yet our access to them is so poor. Walking into a Christian bookstore, or the Christian section of a bookstore, cruising the Christian section of iTunes or looking through faith based magazines tells us that as a movement we haven’t cultivated and valued that. And yet we exist, we are out there… so let’s keep questioning this. Let us keep this Great Conversation going because it is good.